Even with internal development and maturation, the Hawks will have one of the youngest teams in the NBA next season. With its sights set on a playoff run, this team will still lack the seasoning and postseason expertise of a typical playoff team without a key addition or two in the offseason. Atlanta notably lacked veteran voices in the locker room last year, and will likely seek to rectify that issue over the summer. It can be challenging to assess the value of unquantifiable traits like leadership and communication, but Pierce and the rest of the organization believe in the connective power those attributes can have both on and off the floor. The head coach would like to have more of those voices around, and the team’s young nucleus could benefit from the guidance they can offer.
“Internally in the locker room -- the intangibles. There’s an element of toughness, there’s an element of versatility, there’s an element of leadership,” Pierce said. “They’ve got to bring that toughness, they’ve got to bring that leadership on the court. They’ve got to be able to contribute.”
Dewayne Dedmon helped provide that presence last season after the trade deadline, and is currently the only Hawk under contract next season with postseason experience. Lack of experience doesn’t necessarily preclude a young team from breaking into the playoffs, but the Hawks could benefit from having players around who know the rigors of the playoffs, and the discipline required to reach and navigate them.
“We’re gonna need guys that know how to win, that aren’t afraid to speak their voice to staff, to the players, to admit fault. We’re gonna need a lot of those different things for us to move forward,” he said. “We have a lot of talent, we have a lot of young skill, we have a lot of guys that will get better and have gotten better. But we’re gonna need more.”
These three impending veteran free agents could help move the needle for a young Atlanta team looking to make a leap.
Maurice Harkless (New York Knicks)
With the center rotation solidified and Vince Carter no longer on the roster, backup power forward is now the Hawk’s biggest positional uncertainty heading into next season. Ideally, they’d fill that role with an athletic forward capable of sliding to the wing rather than a more traditional power forward to moonlights as a backup center. Harkless fits that description almost perfectly. At 6-foot-7, with a 7-foot-2 wingspan, Harkless is one of the best combo forwards available this summer and, like Harris, could fall into a price range that allows the Hawks to exert their leverage as a team flush with cap space.
Most of Harkless’ appeal comes on defense, where he has the rare combination of size, length, and agility to defend the league’s best wing scorers. He can stay in front of the ball and slither over screens, all while using his length to bother shots other defenders can’t. Few players apply their length like Harkless does; his arms jump out to opponents and viewers alike, and make him one of the most disruptive defenders in the NBA. He has posted above-average block and steal rates every year of his career, and seeks to make plays on that end of the floor -- a trait Lloyd Pierce tried to bring out of his team last season. That can lead to excessive fouling, but Harkless’ team can work around that issue with him in a more ancillary role.
Though limited on offense, Harkless still has utility on that end of the floor. The vast majority of his shots come either at the rim or from the corners -- an encouraging profile for such a low-usage player. He has been a timid 3-point shooter throughout his career and his streaky shooting has dragged Portland down in the playoffs before. But Harkless has hit at least 34 percent of his triples in three of the last four seasons and works around his shooting limitations with heady off-ball movement and decision-making. He generates extra opportunities on the offensive glass and seldom turns the ball over (largely because he hardly ever plays a facilitating role). He’s a capable ball-mover, but hardly a playmaker.
The Hawks will likely use De’Andre Hunter at backup power forward more often next season, but will need another reliable option to soak up minutes both in the frontcourt and on the wing. Harkless’ defensive versatility would give Pierce more flexibility and optionality against elite scorers, and the simplicity of his offensive game wouldn’t require any adjustment of Atlanta’s blossoming offensive system.
Marvin Williams (Milwaukee Bucks)
Williams doesn’t offer the same defensive flexibility Harkless does, but could offer similar aggregate value with his shooting ability. The former Hawk has blossomed into a rock-solid floor-spacing power forward since leaving Atlanta in 2012, canning 37.5 percent of his 3-pointers over the last seven seasons. He can slide his feet with other power forwards and some wings, but most of his defensive utility comes from his reliability as a helper and ability to survive in most any matchup. Williams is a cog you can trust on both ends to fit into whatever scheme his team runs, play within himself, and consistently execute the basic functions of his role. (In other words: a more capable version of what Vince Carter was last season.)
Williams isn’t particularly dynamic at this stage of his career, but he also doesn’t take much off the table. His usage rate has never eclipsed 20 percent in his career, but his next team won’t need him to play a central offensive role. He doesn’t have the shooting versatility of a pure shooter like Davis Bertāns, but he can still play with virtually any type of lineup as either a center or a power forward, and his teams have consistently been better with him on the floor throughout his career.
It’s possible Williams would rather latch onto a contending team than join an up-and-comer like Atlanta -- a perfectly understandable choice for a 33-year-old whose teams have seldom risen above mediocrity. But if his market is cold enough this offseason, the Hawks could be in position to outbid other suitors without too heavily overpaying for a fairly limited -- yet immensely helpful player.
Jared Dudley (Los Angeles Lakers)
If it’s a communicative veteran the Hawks want, they could do worse than Dudley, one of the most garrulous role players in the league. He is far more limited than Harkless and Williams, but Dudley knows who he is and plays strictly within the confines of his game; a coach knows exactly what he’ll get from the 13-year veteran. His effort level is never in question, and Dudley provides nearly every quality -- toughness, leadership, versatility, communication -- Pierce wants in a veteran free agent.
What Dudley provides on the court at this stage of his career isn’t overly exciting, but would still make him a suitable backup power forward for a team that doesn’t necessarily need a dynamic player at that position. He has been a reliable 3-point shooter throughout his career on a low volume of attempts, but still demands enough respect to open up the floor for more skilled players. He’s a sound decision-maker who keeps the offense moving with quick extra passes and dribble-handoffs, and has no problem taking a backseat to ball-dominant stars. In a best-case scenario, he could provide a lower-usage and more efficient version of the role Vince Carter played last season.
Though a step or two slower than he was at his peak, Dudley remains one of the smarter and more committed help defenders in the league, and almost literally never stops communicating coverages and rotations to his teammates. He doesn’t quite have the footspeed to stay in front of wings anymore, but he can capably contain ball-handlers for short bursts in a switching scheme and he has the smarts and the girth to defend either frontcourt position. He relishes the job of mentoring younger players, and in nearly all of his 14 NBA stops, Dudley’s team has been better -- particularly on defense -- with him on the floor.
Dudley only played 311 minutes over 40 games for the Lakers this season, and contributed sparingly in that time; perhaps he’ll accept a similar role next season if it gives him a chance to win a championship. If he’d rather play a more essential role for another up-and-coming team, Atlanta might offer him a place where he has more value.